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Explained: Why artificial snow needs to be pumped to pull off Beijing Winter Olympics

Artificial snow needs to be pumped to pull off the Olympics in Beijing. What is artificial snow, and how is it produced? What is it problematic that Beijing is producing it? Is it beneficial for competition?

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: February 7, 2022 7:32:06 am
Spectators sit in the stands at Zhangjiakou Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou. The venue will host the freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions at the Beijing Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The promise of a ‘green and clean’ winter Olympics by China is one that looks increasingly unlikely with the start of the Games looming closer. A combination of global warming and poor water conservation policies have cast a shadow on not just Beijing’s attempt at holding the Winter Olympics, but the event’s future in general.

A report released by Sport Ecology Group at Loughborough University and Save Our Winters has stated the dangers of artificial snow on athletes’ bodies and the amount of water wastage that happens inevitably for the snow at these games to be produced.

What is artificial snow?

Snow that is injected with water to harden it and then treated with chemicals to keep the hardened snow in place, is a form of artificial snow that is recommended for winter competitions.

The Loughborough University report states that by 2050, only 10 of the 20 venues that have hosted the Winter Olympics since 1924 will be able to produce an amount of snow that is capable of holding an international-level competition like the Winter Olympics. The survival of the Winter Games is based on the production of artificial snow.

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The process of producing this snow is where matters get murky.

How is artificial snow produced?

High volumes of water and energy are required to create slopes of artificial snow that are competition-ready. In a world where natural snowfall is steadily reducing, the usage of artificial snow, especially for sports, has significantly increased.

For the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia used 80% of artificial snow for competitions. That figure rose to 90% for the Pyongyang Winter Games. The 2010 Vancouver Games were also infamous for having to use helicopters to fly in snow for the competitions.

For the Beijing Winter Games, snow making machines from an Italian company called TechnoAlpin have been brought in. Since November 2021, these machines have been pumping out artificial snow. These machines produce this snow by pumping out ice particles at the same time as a thin mist of water vapour. Both these particles are launched upto 60 metres in the air where they combine to become snow and then fall to the ground. TechnoAlpin has been using 290 snow cannons in Beijing, according to the Sunday Times.

Why is it problematic that Beijing is producing artificial snow?

The region of Beijing is notoriously low on water. This has been achieved through an over-reliance on groundwater coupled with the ice glaciers around the area steadily melting since the 1950s at an unsustainable rate. According to a Greenpeace study in 2018, China’s glaciers had melted by 82% and one-fifth of the ice cover had been lost since the 1950s. The report also estimated that the water ‘shortage’ will hit a critical point around the year 2030 when the demand will outstrip the supply considerably.

“There is bound to be some impacts in a region where there is nearly no water in the winter,” said Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg to Bloomberg.com. “For half a year, during the snow sports season, the water stays away from the natural ecosystem.” These Games are estimated to require around 49 million gallons of water to be converted into snow. To put it in perspective, that amount of water would fill 74 Olympic-sized pools.

What has China said about this water usage?

The area of Zhangjiakou, one of the main venues of the Olympics, lays transformed but at some cost. For the past six years, China has attempted to turn the area into a winter destination. Over half of Zhangjiakou is said to be a ‘high water-stressed’ area. According to China Water Risk, a environmental group based out of Hong Kong, the local water resource per capita is one-fifth less than the China average.

Another major problem in the region is that the average precipitation that the area has received over the last four decades periodically is below 8 millimetres. Davos, in Switzerland receives nine times the snowfall in December alone. That combined with the region’s dry weather means water gets lost to evaporation and winds during the ice-making process. Therefore, the region is being pumped with water into the soil which will harden and then create a surface where artificial snow is capable of not melting.

The Zhangjiakou Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou will host the freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

“We are adhering to the concept of sustainability,” said Li Zhenlong, facility manager at the national cross-country skiing centre in Zhangjiakou to the Sunday Times. “We’ve collected surface water for snow-making, and we don’t need to tap any underground water. It has no impact on the environment.”

Beijing has also said that only 2% of the local water supply has been used for the Olympics. At Zhangjiakou, this figure jumps to 9.8%.

Is it beneficial for competition?

There are pros and cons to artificial snow. India’s lone entrant to the Beijing Winter Games Arif Khan has said that artificial snow helps in improving technique.

“It actually helps you build levels of technique. If you have technique, you’ll be able to drive down the slopes with speed while being stable,” said Arif to The Indian Express. He then adds, “It’s kind of a challenge because you’re skiing more on ice than snow. It’s faster and challenging in terms of balance.”

The cons are that artificial snow creates harder and faster slopes and therefore the risk of athletes falling and hurting themselves is higher.

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